As an Amazon Associate, Dressage Today may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our site. Depending on the billet length of your saddle, you’ll need a short or long girth.
Most dressage riders prefer a short girth because it keeps the area underneath the thighs and/or knees bulk-free. For this reason, when using a short girth, select one with adequate padding underneath the buckle area to prevent bruising.
Long girths provide the best stability even though they are considered old-fashioned by the dressage community. To avoid this problem, the buckles should not be farther up than two to three holes from the bottom of the billets on both sides when the girth is tightened.
Some top dressage riders, such as WEG competitor Catherine Haddad Smaller or Olympian Ingrid Like are still being spotted using mostly long girths. The buckle section must sit higher than the horse’s elbow level to avoid interference during movement.
As a rule of thumb, you should be able to fit about two fingers between the bottom of the saddle pad and the top of the girth. Two key features are cutouts to provide maximum room for the horse’s elbows and shoulders, which also prevents wrinkles, bunching up and rubbing, as well as a wider center, which helps to distribute the pressure in the area of the breastbone better.
Crescent- or moon-shaped girths are designed for horses with short backs, wide rib cages and narrow chests, where the saddle tends to slide forward. The downside of leather is that you need to regularly clean and condition it to keep it smooth and prevent it from chafing.
While conventional leather-tanning techniques use chromium salts or formaldehyde, which are considered harmful to humans and the environment, vegetable tanning is an old-world process that uses tannin acids naturally found in some plant species and is considered 100 percent biodegradable and nontoxic. On the downside, like many synthetic materials, neoprene can retain heat, causing skin irritations or rubs.
Synthetic girths tend to be low-maintenance, but can also retain heat and cause skin irritation. Simple as they are, they offer no padding, which can be a problem when using a short girth for a long-billeted saddle, as the buckles are in direct contact with the horse’s body and can cause bruising.
String girths provide good airflow and move with the horse’s body. Some top dressage riders still prefer to ride with these simple girths.
Nonslip girths feature a drippy surface usually made of rubber or neoprene. These girths are a great option if you have a horse who is challenging to fit with a saddle because he has a wider, rounder barrel and flat withers, such as many pony breeds.
The drippy material is designed to stabilize the panels, providing a more secure fit. Fleece-covered girths are good at wicking away moisture and supposedly keep the skin drier and cool.
Cotton fleece breathes well, and synthetic lining can help wick away sweat and keep the horse dry and comfortable. Fleece girths do have the tendency to allow saddles to move around, especially if not fit properly.
Natural sheepskin regulates temperature, wicks away moisture and is well tolerated by sensitive skin. Sheepskin covers can twist and cause pressure points and skin sores.
Horses with extremely sensitive skin will sometimes react to synthetic sheepskin when they sweat. Most modern short girths have a bigger footprint and give you more square inches of contact than older designs.
Both are designed to adapt extremely well to the horse’s body and reduce pressure points. When using a short girth, look for one with generous padding around the buckle area to prevent pressure points on the skin.
Elastics: Some girths come with elasticized center panels, which distribute pressure more widely through the girth area, allowing the rib cage to expand and contract for more comfort and better breathing, and keep the saddle centered and secure. Poor condition: Avoid girths that have lost their shape, and cause uneven pressure.
The key is that when the girth is adjusted correctly, it should sit symmetrically in the center, with the buckles on each side at about the same height. If the girth is adjusted correctly, you should be able to slide your flat hand underneath it on the left or right side.
There should be a positive response to the body, like a polite handshake as opposed to someone crushing your fingers. Imagine tightening a belt around your body too vigorously, and see what it does to your level of comfort and breathing.
“In terms of back pain, it’s especially kissing spines and osteoarthritis of the dorsal articular processes. But conversely, there is a huge amount of undiagnosed problems that have to do with orthopedic issues in the back.
Both of those will cause back pain and both of them will commonly exhibit as a horse who has a birthing problem, is cold-backed or girth. To look at the dorsal processes takes a greater effort, as one needs a big, ceiling-mounted machine or a nuclear body scan, which can only be done in an equine hospital setting.
Dr. Allen adds that a poorly fitted or too-tight girth can also bruise the horse’s sternum. If you routinely overtighten the girth or crank it up without feel, most horses will react by tensing the rib cage.
Other warning signs can include sensitivity in the elbow and breastbone area (where the girth pressure is highest), unwillingness to go forward or pinning back ears, swishing the tail, biting or kicking when the girth is tightened. A smooth finish and appropriate padding around the buckles on short girths are a must, as is the right size.
If your horse is girth, consider getting a proper veterinary exam to make sure it’s not a more serious problem. If you follow these principles, you might find your new girth is just what you needed to improve your competitive edge.
Cordial Pearson is a Society of Master Saddlers qualified saddle fitter. A lifelong dressage rider and Morgan breeder, she and her husband’s, Charles, foal is Avatar’s Jazz man, a U.S. Grand Prix Pony Champion.
Based in Stacy, Minnesota, she saddles horses all over the world and will happily answer questions from her site saddlefitter.com. A. Kent Allen, DVD, graduated from the University of Missouri in 1979 and has been practicing equine medicine ever since.
He is currently certified by the International Society of Equine Loco motor Pathology (ISEP), serving as its vice president and executive director. And any horse who's ever had to endure chafing, pinching or the painful constriction of a poorly designed or ill-fitting cinch or girth would certainly agree.
So to help you zero in on the type of cinch or girth that will best suit your horse, your saddle and your circumstances, we're going to cover some of your options. Of course, a big part of your choice will rest on personal preference (and your bank account).
However, making an informed decision also means knowing a little about design and construction. For training problems, see the November 2002 issue, because being cinch isn't something that you or the horse should “just live with,” nor is the gradual cinching method always safe.
One way to help prevent your horse from having a bad cinching experience is to follow these saddling guidelines. As soon as you have the saddle in place on your horse's back and have everything smoothed out (hair lying flat, pad pulled up into the gullet), use a steady pull to tighten the cinch or girth enough to ensure that the saddle will stay put if the horse should make a sudden move.
Be sure to check the cinch again prior to mounting and tighten it as necessary so that it is snug enough to keep the saddle in place before you put your weight into the stirrup and swing aboard. While you want the cinch to be secure, you don't want it to restrict the horse's freedom of movement or chest expansion as he breathes.
Will you be riding your horse for hours at a time, where long-term girth or cinch comfort is a factor? Although you'll find dozens of styles of girths and cinches, the shape basically falls into one of three categories.
The roper style widens out in the middle (the part that will lie directly underneath the horse). This design helps spread the pressure of the girth or cinch across a wider area, which gives it more comfort and stability.
These girths are designed for comfort and freedom of movement by conforming to horse anatomy, generally curving away from the elbows and widening somewhat across the belly area. If he's had problems tolerating a particular design in the past, it might be worth investigating an alternative style.
Various materials may offer significant benefits (softness, sweat absorption, resistance to slipping, easy maintenance) or possible downsides (lack of durability, a tendency to cause galls, an affinity for brush and burrs, too much give). Because cinches have spaces between the strings, they allow for a good airflow, which enables sweat to dry.
Cinches and girths are sized in two-inch increments, so if you end up with an odd number, round up, not down. With all the choices in size, style, shape and materials, it may seem as if every horse needs a different cinch or girth.
But tack shops and catalogs have wide selections, so once you narrow your choices to what will best suit you and your horse, you'll be able to find exactly what you want.